A bipartisan group of states’ Attorneys General is suing Google, alleging that the Big Tech giant used deceptive practices to continually track its users’ location.
The Attorneys General of Washington State, Indiana, Texas, and Washington, D.C. have each filed suits in their respective federal courts, alleging that Google violated various consumer protection laws in those states.
The D.C. lawsuit stems from a 2018 report by The Associated Press which found that “many Google services on Android devices and iPhones store your location data even if you’ve used a privacy setting that says it will prevent Google from doing so.” AP reported at the time that Google Maps users can disable the “Location History” feature, which records places the user has been. However, “[e]ven with Location History paused, some Google apps automatically store time-stamped location data without asking.” The AP further reported:
For example, Google stores a snapshot of where you are when you merely open its Maps app. Automatic daily weather updates on Android phones pinpoint roughly where you are. And some searches that have nothing to do with location, like “chocolate chip cookies,” or “kids science kits,” pinpoint your precise latitude and longitude — accurate to the square foot — and save it to your Google account.
The privacy issue affects some two billion users of devices that run Google’s Android operating software and hundreds of millions of worldwide iPhone users who rely on Google for maps or search.
The D.C. Attorney General’s Office opened an investigation into Google based on the AP report, finding that since as early as 2014, “Google has systematically deceived consumers about how their locations are tracked and used and has misled consumers to believe that they can control what information Google collects about them.” Attorney General Ken Racine announced he was suing Google on Monday for violations of the District’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act, which protects against deceptive trade practices. The suit alleges that Google:
- Makes it nearly impossible for users to opt out of having their location tracked, using hidden functions in Google’s apps, as well as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi scans, the user’s IP address, or other means.
- Deceives users about their ability to protect their privacy through their account settings
- Misleads Android device users about their ability to protect their privacy through their device settings
- Relying on “dark patterns,” such as repeated nudging, pressure tactics, and deceptive descriptions of features and settings, to undermine users’ choice to disable location tracking
“Google falsely led consumers to believe that changing their account and device settings would allow customers to protect their privacy and control what personal data the company could access,” Racine said in a statement. “The truth is that contrary to Google’s representations it continues to systematically surveil customers and profit from customer data. Google’s bold misrepresentations are a clear violation of consumers’ privacy. I’m proud to lead this bipartisan group of attorneys general that will hold Google accountable for its deception. Through this lawsuit, we will hold Google accountable, and in the process, educate consumers on how their personal data—particularly sensitive data about their physical location—is collected, stored, and monetized. This result of our collective action is that consumers, not Google, will determine how their data is or is not used.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced a similar lawsuit Monday, arguing that Google’s practices violate the state’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act. “Google’s founding motto is ‘Don’t Be Evil.’ And yet it systematically lies to millions of consumers in order to stack billions of dollars into its coffers,” Paxton said. “Big Tech companies like Google continue to erode the American way of life and often break the law to maintain their overwhelming dominant market position… This is not only an unethical invasion of privacy—it’s against the law.”
Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita and Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson also filed lawsuits Monday. “Google has prioritized profits over people,” Rokita said. “It has prioritized financial earnings over following the law. We Hoosiers are the first to salute business success, but we also expect companies to be honest and obey the rules.”
“Location data is deeply personal for consumers,” Ferguson said of his state’s lawsuit. “This information reveals the most significant details of our lives. Google denied consumers the ability to choose whether Google could track their sensitive location data to make a profit. Google kept tracking individuals’ location data even after consumers told the corporation to stop. This is not only dishonest — it’s unlawful.”
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